Life, Death, Art, and AIDS
April 26, 2000
Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Compiled by Ted Gott. National Gallery of Australia; distributed by Thames and Hudson. 246 pp. $19.95.In The Company Of My Solitude: Americans Writing From the AIDS Pandemic. Edited by Marie Howe and Michael Klein. Persea. 219 pp. $14.95.AIDS is a powerful muse, an ironic source of inspiration for the creative community it ravages. In addressing works born out of a devastating epidemic, the temptation is to assign nobility simply because of the subject matter. It's especially easy when the works are, by and large, so tender and sympathetic. Critics tiptoe around the art, even when it ends up being little more than melodrama. But courage doesn't make one good. Sickness doesn't bestow talent. Who wants pity?Don't Leave Me This Way and In the Company of My Solitude address the impact that AIDS has had on the painters and photographers and poets of our day with anger, wit and vibrancy, and with mercifully few forays into the maudlin or self-exalting.Created as a companion piece to last winter's exhibition of the same name at the National Gallery of Australia, Don't Leave Me This Way is a clear-headed, sharp examination of the relationship between AIDS and art. Works by Cindy Sherman, Derek Jarman and Keith Haring are juxtaposed with essays by Edmund White and Simon Watney.While the art and opinions attempt to be far-ranging, there is nonetheless an element of sameness about the book. Exhibition curator Ted Gott admits that "over 80% of the new HIV diagnoses in Australia still involve male-to-male sexual contact." Add to that the relative invisibility of women and people of color in the art world (just ask your local Guerrilla Girl), and the artistic representation of AIDS is bound to be at odds with our present-day American reality. Despite some stabs at diversity--Rea's lesbian-themed "Lemons I-IV" and art from Australia's Aboriginal community--the overall picture doesn't do much to debunk the pervasive image of AIDS as "the gay disease."The collection explores the terror of the epidemic in ways that are often lost in popular AIDS symbols. The red ribbon, originally a project of Visual AIDS, has rapidly gone from a sign of solidarity to "a sop for middle-class do-gooders." ACT UP now proclaims that "Red Ribbons are for Gift Wrapping." Art about AIDS that's tougher than a crimson scrap of fabric is difficult to deal with because it conjures up our darkest demons, forcing us to confront the horror and revulsion we feel toward our bodies, fluids and functions. Edmund White, in "Aesthetics and Loss," reminds us that "if Yeats thought sex and death were the only two topics worthy of adult consideration, then AIDS wins hands down as subject matter."It's not surprising, then, to be more than a little shocked at Mark I. Chester's photos of Robert Chesley--his flesh wracked with KS lesions and his member defiantly aroused. Or to be pained at the photo of Michelle in "Self Documentation Self Imaging," her belly huge with the child she may fatally infect as she brings it into the world. We swallow hard when we read her words, "I believe positive women have got every right to have children." We believe ourselves open-minded; we think, of course, it's her body, but the image of that swollen abdomen haunts us. Semen, blood, placenta, lesions--they're everything we fear most. Yet look away from the viscera, and the picture is just as grim. Cindy Sherman's tableau of sex toys and condoms is dry, lonely and achingly sad.The accompanying texts by highly charged, opinionated writers are just as fierce and pointed as the images, and address creative options to the AIDS crisis: art as an act of mourning, political statement, tribute. These writers know second-rate art and timid criticism don't defy death, they only insult the dead.Fortunately, Simon Watney, director of the Red Hot Charitable Trust, accepts no excuses. "Much bad art has been produced in response to AIDS," he offers, waving it away, "art which is every bit as sentimental or sensationalizing or exploitative as the worst that the mass media has to offer." And Edmund White observes with appropriate cynicism that "the most visible artistic expressions of AIDS have been movies, television dramas, and melodramas on the stage, almost all of which have emphasized that AIDS is a terribly moving human experience."White says, "Avoid humour, because humour seems grotesquely inappropriate to the occasion. Humour puts the public (indifferent when not uneasy) on cosy terms with what is an unspeakable scandal: death." Ted Gott, on the other hand, examines the David McDiarmid prints that snap, "It's My Party, and I'll Die If I Want to, Sugar," and "Honey, Have You Got It?" in all the colors of a screaming neon gay pride rainbow. Gott quotes Watney: "Far from making death 'cosy,' wit is an indispensable means to public understanding." If we can't conquer it, why can't we at least laugh at it? The disparate voices of these essayists, combined with wildly varying art, serve as a reminder that AIDS isn't a trend. It isn't this year's look. Editors Marie Howe and Michael Klein tap into the universality of AIDS in their anthology In the Company of My Solitude. The book highlights not just works from prominent writers like Harold Brodkey and Paul Monette, but also gives space to ordinary but talented men and women who have been touched by the specter of AIDS. In his introduction, Klein explains, "We were especially interested in work from people who haven't been heard from--voices from the homeless shelter, the high school, the sex-worker industry." As long as AIDS is seen as someone else's problem, gay leaders will reach out to the White House and be met with gloved hands, while those who are not gay, white and male--the people who make up more than half of the H.I.V. carriers in the country--will continue to believe themselves untouchable. Easy-E or Tina Chow are seen as anomalies, freak accidents; by showing that AIDS is not solely the province of the artistic and literary, In the Company of My Solitude makes it relevant and tangible.Some of the contributors have since died, and their essays now serve as elegies. They aren't all saints and martyrs, clean-cut, noble Tom Hanks types. In "Sex, Drugs, Rock-N-Roll, and AIDS," Iris de la Cruz, a prostitute, admits to "basically living in shooting galleries," and observes that "there is nothing more pitiful than an old junkie whore." Yet she emerges as unflinching and gutsy as any Hollywood hero.In "Fear of AIDS Killed Sarah," 18-year-old Christine Boose recounts her best friend's suicide after an H.I.V. diagnosis, and does it in a way that is so completely unselfconscious, so utterly in the vernacular of her world, that its awkward adolescence can only serve as tender eloquence. "I was the only friend that stuck around when everyone else sort of disappeared," she explains. No milking of sympathy, no drama, just sorrow, raw and wrenching--so different from Harold Brodkey's detached amazement at his lack of fear in "To My Readers," which is cool and cerebral.By comparison, Eve Ensler's "All of Us Are Leaving," deliberate and stylized, with its carefully chosen and arranged blocks of words, may hold up as a respectable piece of writing, but it doesn't evoke a grieving, empathetic recognition the way some of the other pieces do. Kate Scannell's "Skills and Pills" is a passionate report from the front lines. New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan goes to D.C. in "Quilt" and sees panels that are both "tacky and vital"; the everydayness of it--its scatterings of jeans and college pennants--represents such heartfelt and honest feeling he is moved. The quilt is a lot like this book, really.That the editors were able to assemble such high-quality writing from outside the jaded publishing world is admirable. In the Company of My Solitude could have been a crapshoot. It could have been the pity wallow of the year. But it isn't. It's stunning.This is writing from the community health worker, from the adoring niece of an H.I.V.-positive man, from the mother of a junkie. As they stand between the pages, toe-to-toe with Carol Muske and Fenton Johnson, it's a reminder that death is the great equalizer. You don't have to receive a grant from the N.E.A. to understand anguish and compassion. In this context, the heavyweights are fair game for re-evaluation. Paul Monette's "Puck," a chronicle of loss wrapped around a beloved pet, suddenly seems long and indulgent, and Marlon Riggs's "Letters to the Dead" becomes so personal it's almost embarrassing. Denise Ribble's "A Day in the Life," meanwhile, with its community health worker answering the questions of a self-proclaimed lesbian vampire, rouses emotion because of its sheer weird, dignified humanity.In Don't Leave Me This Way, Thomas Sokolowski admits, "Art does not save lives in the way that drugs, medical care, and government-supported health care systems can save lives." The professional and part-time artists and writers who were motivated by sickness and death to contribute to both books understand what art does do. When the body is gone, it's all that's left of us.